MOBILE, Ala. – Ask Freddie Roach for his favorite American medalist and the famed trainer doesn’t have to stop, think and search for an answer.
“Sugar Ray Leonard,’’ Roach says without hesitation.
That was easy.
Not so easy is the search for answers to a restoration of the gold standard that Leonard represented in 1976. After America’s boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980, good U.S. teams followed with Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland, Paul Gonzales, Henry Tillman and Evander Holyfield in 1984, and Roy Jones Jr., Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer and Michael Carbajal in 1988.
Since then, however, U.S. Olympic boxing has been more like the stock market than precious metals. It has collapsed with only three gold medals over the last five Olympiads – Oscar De La Hoya in 1992, David Reid in 1996, Andre Ward in 2004 – and only Deontay Wilder’s bronze to show for 2008 in Beijing.
An attempt to put Americans back on the medal stand is what brought Roach to Mobile for the U.S. Olympic Trials, which ended Friday with a team of 10 that now begins to train for World Championships on Sept. 22-Oct. 10 in Baku, Azerbaijan for the next step in qualifying for the London Games next summer.
He sat at a table, far from either corner, a fan surrounded by fans. But Roach, a 1976 alternate for the Leonard-led team in Montreal, was also there to work as a consultant on a staff led by U.S. coach Joe Zanders, who calls him a technical advisor.
It was clear that he didn’t want to interfere with the fighters’ personal coaches, whose interference was one of the issues in 2008. But he was taking mental notes, preparing himself to counsel, encourage and teach kids who know him mostly for being Manny Pacquiao’s trainer. The Pacquiao influence was there, echoing like thunder from storms that raged outside the building at the old Mobile Civic Center.
“Put the Pacquiao on him, throw the Pacquiao at him,’’ Cleveland lightweight Raynell Williams’ coach yelled, urging his lefthander to throw the left Thursday night during the finals of the challengers bracket.
Roach’s work in turning Pacquiao into the world’s best fighter and Amir Khan into one of its best is a factor that USA Boxing Executive Director Anthony Bartkowski believes will boost America’s battered confidence. Zanders also says it might help the U.S. get a fairer number of clicks on the computer pad from international judges, although it’s still hard to figure out an often baffling system.
Cincinnati flyweight Rau’shee Warren already senses a difference, an optimistic shift in tone, since Roach’s role with the Olympic boxing team was announced on the afternoon before Pacquiao’s one-sided victory over Shane Mosley. Every parent tells their kids that they are judged by who their associates are. Roach is a proven winner, which a significant departure from the recent collection of Olympic teams.
“If he can make world champions, he can make Olympic medalists,’’ said Warren, who continues his pursuit of a medal after suffering through early elimination in both 2004 and 2008.
Warren already has worked out at Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club. So, too, has Williams, who failed in his bid to become a two-time Olympian Friday in a loss Jose Ramirez of Arenal, Calif. For Roach, the next task on his crowded agenda is to work with the team at the Wild Card.
“Five at a time, a week at a time,’’ Roach said. “There was great competition here. Good prospects.’’
Roach is on record as saying he wants the Americans to be more aggressive, more offensive-minded. At the Wild Card, that mindset will already be there with collection of young prospects, who have learned it while working alongside Pacquiao and Khan. Roach said he plans to have unbeaten Jose Benavidez Jr., Peter Quillin and newly-signed Wale Omotoso, a Nigerian living in Australia, to work with the U.S. team as training partners, both at the Wild Card and then at the Olympic camp in Colorado Springs.
“Working with guys at that level is a real chance to challenge them and help them improve,’’ Roach said.
“If Olympians worked with the runner-ups from here (the Trails), they might repeat some of the same mistakes,’’ Bartkowski said. “This is a way to ramp up the training. It is a step in what I think is an innovative program.’’
Roach is the face of that innovation. But there’s more. Zanders demand for accountability includes re-qualifying for the U.S.team for anybody who does not qualify for London at the World Championship. To get to London, fighters in the eight divisions between light flyweight and light heavyweight must finish among the Top 10 in the Worlds. In the heavyweight and super heavyweight division, they will have to finish in the top six. If they don’t, there is second chance to reach London in Continental qualifying.
But a victory in Mobile was no guarantee for a trip to the Continental tournament, Zanders said. For any American who doesn’t qualify at the Worlds, there will be another trials, Zanders said.
“I ask you: If you walk out the door and get hit in the head, would you do it again?’’ Zanders said.
Not this time, anyway.
In part, Roach’s addition is also a step in trying to deal with the personal coaches, often dads, who split the Beijing team into feuding camps, each with a different agenda. The personal coaches didn’t want to give up control of their fighters to the 2008 staff.
“I know that there a lot of politics involved in Olympic boxing,’’ Roach said when he accepted the Olympic role. “I think I’m pretty good at dealing with kids and their fathers.
“I want their personal input. It’s extremely valuable.’’
Roach’s proven expertise might ease suspicions that Olympic coaches are trying to steal fighters from those who have been with them from the beginning
“We want to get the personal coaches involved,’’ Bartkowski said. “We’re to eliminate the idea, the mystique that we’re trying to steal your athlete. We know that the personal coach and athlete have had a personal relationship since the athlete was about knee tall. We’re not trying to break down the bond. We’re trying to strengthen with what we do at tournaments on the national level.
“Coach Zanders does it with fundamentals. Freddie does the same thing, all with fundamentals. We learn from the personal coach. And the personal coach learns from some of the best.’’
Roach has no choice but to rely on the personal coaches. He doesn’t have enough time between now and the opening ceremonies in London to work with each of the 10 winners in Mobile. His primary responsibility is Paquiao’s third fight against Juan Manuel Marquez on Nov. 12.
If Pacquiao wins and continues to fight at his current schedule, there will be another one, perhaps the biggest fight in years, in May against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Then, there’s Khan, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Benavidez, Quillin, Omotoso and Roach’s daily fight with Parkinson’s.
“I like to work and I’ll work until I can’t,’’ said Roach, who one day might work himself on to a list of favorite Olympians.